Bullock and the ghosts of turncoats past

There’s a history of MPs under pressure jumping ship, so Labor should be careful about trying to retrospectively disendorse Senator-elect Joe Bullock.

“Self-preservation is a strong motive in politics” – Mal Colston, The Odd One Out, 1975.

Other than indulging in a serious case of closing the gate after the horse has bolted, Labor’s left unions should be very careful about trying to retrospectively disendorse Senator-elect Joe Bullock or force him to step aside for the more prospective candidate, Louise Pratt.

Parliamentarians placed under similar pressure have been known to inconveniently jump ship, particularly when they’re offered attractive inducements by the other side to do so.

Federal Labor’s most notorious rat, Senator Mal Colston, was lured away by the newish Liberal PM John Howard in 1996. Colston was peeved that his own side wouldn’t nominate him to become deputy president of the Senate, a plum role he’d held previously from 1990 to 1993. So after advances from the Coalition, Colston resigned from Labor and became an independent. Later that day he was nominated by the government and duly elected as deputy president.

Colston’s defection gave Howard one of the two extra votes he needed to get government legislation through the Senate. Brian Harradine, the canny former Labor man and staunchly conservative independent Senator from Tasmania, wielded the other. Notwithstanding the price Harradine extracted for his votes, this was easier for Howard than having to negotiate with Labor, the Democrats or the Greens.

Labor didn’t take this well. They hounded the turncoat Colston for (previously forgiven and other) travel allowance indiscretions, causing him to resign from his cherished deputy president position less than a year after he regained it. He was charged with 28 counts of fraud for misusing his travel allowance, leading Howard to vow that the government would not accept the disgraced Senator’s vote in the Senate (although this undertaking proved to be short-lived). Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Colston was never prosecuted for his alleged misdeeds.

If you thought one unedifying saga involving a MP with questionable party loyalty and an appetite for the spoils of office would be a salutary lesson for all concerned, then think again.

Proving that Labor can just as easily play this game, the Gillard government tried to turn not one but two disaffected Liberals to shore up its numbers in 2011. Initially Labor tried to entice Queensland Liberal Alex Somlyay with the deputy speaker position in return for his support in no confidence votes and budget bills. When this strategy failed, Labor’s sights moved to Somlyay’s nemesis and neighbour in an adjacent electorate, Peter Slipper.

Slipper was already subject to allegations of travel allowance misuse and under pressure from former Howard government minister, Mal Brough, who was lining up to challenge him for preselection.

Slipper accepted the government’s nomination for deputy speaker (over their own Anna Burke) but insisted he’d made no deals with Labor to support them in parliamentary votes. Yet a year later, when speaker Harry Jenkins resigned from the chair to shore up the minority government’s precarious numbers, Slipper accepted the government’s nomination to become speaker and promptly resigned from the Liberal Party to become “truly independent”.

The Liberals were no less assiduous in their pursuit of turncoat Slipper than Labor were with Colston. Even if the James Ashby allegations had not emerged, it’s likely Tony Abbott’s opposition would have pursued the man who was arguably the most impartial and effective Speaker we’ve had in recent times, on travel allowance misuse.

Tragically for both Colston and Slipper, their fondness for the perks of office ultimately made it easier for their political enemies to tear them down.

And today, as Abbott surveys the political landscape emerging after the Western Australia Senate election re-run, he cannot but consider the opportunities presented by a disgruntled Joe Bullock.

Depending on the final outcome of the WA ballot, Abbott may need up to seven of the eight crossbench votes in the Senate to pass his totem bills. If we are to believe media reports, Bullock and Abbott were once good friends with similar political philosophies but who ultimately took divergent paths once they left university. Considering their comparable views, the defection of Bullock to the crossbench could make Abbott’s negotiation task just that little bit easier.

Of course, Bullock would have to feel disaffected enough by his own party to want to leave. Despite the calls from the left for Bullock to step aside, so far the right-wing Labor Leader Bill Shorten is standing by his man. But watch Bullock closely if Shorten starts to wobble.

Even then, Abbott would have to provide the Senator-elect with something valued if the PM is going to have any chance of luring Bullock away from Labor.

Does this portend yet another Labor turncoat being nominated by the Government and elected as deputy president of the Senate?

It could be déjà vu.

Shorten must break the union stranglehold

Labor is on the nose and Bill Shorten has a plan to appeal to the middle ground. But as with Labor leaders before him, he will need to confront the unions if he hopes to make a change.

There’s no way to put a gloss on it: the Labor Party is on the nose with voters.

The Liberals and Labor both suffered swings of about 5 per cent against them in the weekend’s Western Australia Senate election re-run. But given the chance to protest against the Abbott Government for its litany of flaws and failures, voters chose to flock to the bombastic Clive Palmer and Greens social media hero Scott Ludlam instead of Labor’s alternative prime minister, Bill Shorten.

Shorten didn’t really need the rejection to know he has a problem. The unwillingness of some Labor supporters to choose either the gay marriage advocate Louise Pratt or the Neanderthal Joe Bullock likely reinforced his existing view that the ALP needs to reconnect with voters in the middle ground in order to survive.

The Labor Leader foreshadowed this last month at the National Press Club when he announced that he wanted to mainstream the Labor Party by opening it up to non-traditional party members and “modernise” Labor’s relationship with the union movement. By integrating middle Australia into the party’s ranks, Shorten clearly hopes Labor will better reflect the needs and aspirations of the broader political centre and thereby secure their elusive votes.

Shorten was expected to announce his proposed reforms today.

It’s hard to pinpoint which of the anticipated changes will be resisted more by the unions: those that affect their ability to influence Labor’s policies or those that curb their right to gift seats in Parliament.

Both powers are responsible for driving voters away.

The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), for example, continues to influence its faction members’ position on same-sex marriage, ensuring that even a conscience vote on the matter would not produce a majority of supportive Labor MPs. Meanwhile the CFMEU has no qualms about whipping up xenophobia to further its campaign against 457 visas for foreign workers, giving little regard to how that exacerbates community prejudice against asylum seekers.

Equally alienating for centrist voters is the ALP’s all-too-common practice of relegating high quality candidates to tenuous positions on Senate tickets or unwinnable House of Representatives seats while lesser quality candidates are given safe positions as a reward for their time served in the union movement.

It seems nothing was learned in 2012 when the faceless man, SDA member and factional heavyweight, Don Farrell, gained and then gave up the number one Senate spot in South Australia to then Finance Minister Penny Wong.

The practice continued in 2013 when right-wing unions muscled in longtime SDA official Joe Bullock as the number one WA Senate candidate for the upcoming federal election. They did so again for last weekend’s Senate election re-run, both times consigning the more politically prospective but left-wing Louise Pratt to the challenging second position on the ticket and possible defeat.

Granted, Senate sinecures are not the sole province of Labor; the Liberals are also good at slotting former party operatives into winnable senate positions. But in the case of Senator-elect Joe Bullock, who cruelly ridiculed his running mate and called all Labor members crazy, this may well have been the last straw for Western Australian Labor supporters on polling day.

In a perverse way, the poor Senate result may be just what Shorten needs to take the edge off resistance to his proposed weakening of the unions’ hold on the party.

Following last month’s Press Club address the Labor Leader has reportedly been calling party officials and union leaders to talk them through his proposal. Trusted others such as Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek and former Senate leader Chris Evans have been singing the same tune. And today’s announcement is the next step in creating a sense of momentum and inevitability for the changes.

Yet if he is to succeed, Shorten will need something that evaded the two previous Labor leaders who tried to sever the nexus between the ALP and its labour roots.

He will need unions to be willing supporters of the reforms, or at the very least for them not to plot against him as they did with Crean and Rudd. Thanks to Rudd’s antipathy for the unions and the rules he imposed to make it harder to change the party leader, it will at least be much harder for recalcitrant unions to remove Shorten before he attempts to save his party from future electoral oblivion.

For Tassie and SA, it was all about the jobs

The Greens can search for meaning in the Tasmania and South Australia election results, but the truth is it all boiled down to a battle over jobs.

While the parties vie with each other to favourably spin the results of the weekend’s state elections – where one Labor government was routed and another may yet cling to victory – one clear lesson is the Greens can become collateral damage when elections are fought over jobs.

For whether the results are attributed to local issues or national ones, seen as a message for the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader, or simply a matter of a government’s time being up (or not), both election outcomes were predominantly about jobs, or lack thereof.

Protection and growth of employment prospects was always going to be a pivotal issue in both campaigns. Tasmania and South Australia have the nation’s highest unemployment rates, and the apple isle also has the lowest weekly wage. Job insecurity is high across Australia and jobs have become the major parties’ chosen battleground.

So the two considerably divergent election outcomes could generally be explained as being due to local issues, but more specifically the result of voters holding certain parties to account for the poor state of employment.

If there’s a message that Prime Minister Tony Abbott should take from the South Australian election outcome it’s that SA voters don’t take lightly to their slightly dodgy but still famous car manufacturing industry being abandoned and then run out of town by the Federal Government.

Successive industry ministers have recognised over several decades that the perceived importance of car manufacturing jobs extends beyond the directly affected electorates. They threw money at the increasingly unviable industry not out of the goodness of their hearts but to hold off the dire electoral consequences. And now Abbott knows what it’s like to release that particular beast.

While the South Australian count is not yet concluded, there are enough trends evident in the vote counted so far to draw a few conclusions. The SA Liberals achieved a modest swing in their primary vote, but failed to draw a similar amount away from Labor in order to secure enough seats to form government. This suggests some of the 60 per cent of voters who thought the Liberals would win stayed with Labor in protest.

Granted, this protest vote may not have done as much damage if the South Australian Liberals had run a half decent marginal seats campaign, but that is another matter altogether.

Interestingly, according to the ballots counted so far, the Green vote in South Australia increased by almost half a per cent. This trend runs counter to the slew of state, territory and federal elections since 2010 where their vote dropped. The status quo vote for the Greens in South Australia suggests they were neither blamed nor particularly acclaimed for their contribution since the previous state election. For good or bad, the election was about the major parties and the Greens survived by keeping off the jobs radar.

In contrast, on the same day as the South Australian election, the Tasmanian Greens and one-time partners in a Labor minority government lost eight percentage points from their vote and three of their five seats in the state’s lower house.

Undoubtedly many factors combined to produce that result, but there’s no denying that jobs played a significant part. Abbott and the Tasmanian Liberals ran strong on reinvigorating the forestry industry; essentially putting jobs before the environment.

It’s clear from this strategy that the Liberals’ private market research showed voters were ready to seek retribution for what they perceived to be a weak Labor Party rolling over to the Greens’ environmental demands instead of protecting jobs. Labor’s vote dropped by about 10 per cent in the Tasmanian poll, thereby ceding majority government to the Liberals for the first time since the Groom Liberal government was elected in 1992.

If the Greens are perceived to be thwarting jobs in Western Australia they may suffer a similar fate to their Tasmanian colleagues in the WA Senate election re-run that will be held on April 5. Western Australia doesn’t face the same job pressures that bedevil South Australia and Tasmania, though the downturn in the mining boom would be causing some employment anxiety.

Additionally, the Australian Greens no longer have a power sharing arrangement with the incumbent federal government and cannot be held directly responsible for jobs in the way the Tasmanian Greens were.

Yet there’s no doubt the Abbott Government will assist WA voters in recalling that the Greens were responsible for Julia Gillard’s broken carbon tax vow and the “job destroying” impost that resulted from it. The Coalition will likely lay the mining tax at the Greens’ feet too, now that Shorten has conveniently blurred his stance on the failed profit sharing mechanism.

So while the Greens will be campaigning to be given a balance of power position in the Senate to keep the Abbott Government from the worst of its excesses, the Government will press for the Greens to be prevented from being able to block the repeal of “job destroying” laws. Meantime, Labor will quietly do its best to harvest votes away from the Greens with selective preference deals.

The Greens may believe that every time Abbott opens his mouth “the Green vote goes up“, but the opposite effect is more likely.

On April 5, a Greens Senator will be elected (or not) predominantly because of what WA voters perceive their party has done (or not) to protect and foster jobs in that state. Other factors such as climate change, asylum seekers, health, education and sharks may play a role, but it will simply come down to jobs.

Parties prepare arsenal for jobs war

With three elections coming up and all the talk of jobs, jobs jobs, both major parties will engage in negative campaigning and try to pin the blame for unemployment on their opponent.

If you’re not yet tired of hearing about Australian jobs, you soon will be. Now the Western Australian Senate election re-run and two state electioncampaigns are under way, with several campaign launches taking place last week and on the weekend, voters are going to be inundated with allegations, innuendo and selective truths about which party is the greater job-wrecker.

Job security – or its proxy, economic management – consistently rates as one of the most important issues to Australian voters. And it’s a time-honoured rule of political communication that voters are more likely to believe a politician saying something negative about their opponent than something positive about themselves. That’s why negative campaigning is so effective.

So these elections will feature party messages about job creation, but the predominant narrative will be that the other lot will put your job at risk.

Granted, it’s not hard to evoke job anxiety in the current economic climate. The resources boom has finally come off the boil, the broader business sector is rationalising (read: laying people off) as the economy contracts, and thousands of job losses have been announced or occurred before and after the election of the Abbott Government. This has left the nation with the highest unemployment rate in more than a decade, which may go even higher if Treasury forecasts are accurate.

The two states going to the polls on March 15 currently have the nation’s highest unemployment rates(Tasmania 7.6 per cent and South Australia 6.6 per cent), while the state going back for a new Senate election has the lowest (5.1 per cent). So for quite different reasons, none of the voters in those states will likely be enamoured with a party that destroys jobs or prevents them from being created.

Yet that is the contention the major parties will attempt to pin on each other. Abbott will blame the carbon tax, mining tax, the renewable energy target, unnecessarily burdensome regulation (aka red and green tape), the unions and bad economic management by Labor. Shorten will say Abbott’s in the thrall of big business, making plans to strip away workers’ pay and conditions while throwing hard-earned taxpayers dollars at wealthy superannuants and executive mummies.

The outcome of the state elections is neither here nor there for Abbott. If Labor manages to retain either of the governments, it can do little more than be a minor irritant at COAG and slow down what is already a glacial pace of reform through that entity. Labor states could of course stymie any attempt to raise the GST – which needs the agreement of all states and territories to change the legislation – but it’s reasonably safe to assume Abbott won’t attempt that reform during this term.

The WA Senate election re-run is another matter. The fresh election brings with it new candidates, new preference deals and probably even new parties. It also provides WA voters with the opportunity to lodge the ultimate protest vote by potentially affecting the prospects of the Abbott Government’s signature reforms like the carbon tax, mining tax, Direct Action and Paid Parental Leave.

The voters of Tasmania and South Australia may rally against the Coalition because of jobs lost, but the comfortably prosperous in WA may lash out at Abbott’s Senate team because of concerns their jobs are under threat. It’s therefore no surprise the Coalition is already framing the Senate election re-run as a pseudo state election to elect “a strong Western Australia Liberal team … to get the best outcomes for Western Australia” rather than one that determines who holds the balance of power in the Senate.

Labor essentially created the unemployment bogeyman in 2007 when it, ably assisted by the ACTU, whipped job security concerns to a near frenzy when campaigning against PM John Howard’s WorkChoices. PM Kevin Rudd managed to avoid the lumbering monster during the GFC with an economic stimulus package aimed at keeping and creating jobs. Yet a darker aspect of job anxiety, which had existed since the Howard years, rose again with demands for PM Julia Gillard to place limits on foreign workers and to stop the boats.

And now the jobs war has turned full circle, with the Coalition Government placing job losses squarely at the feet of the Labor Party and a union movement that it intends to demoralise completely.

If the major parties’ state and WA Senate campaigns go to plan, we may see the proportion of people with job anxiety rise from the current level of 55 per cent to something closer to the 67 per cent who were concerned about job security in April 2009 during the GFC.

Will the parties be concerned about the heightened state of anxiety among Australian voters, or will they see it merely as a means to an end? It would pay both sides to consider the collateral damage that’s starting to pile up.

2014 with a bang!

My first post of the year for The King’s Tribune, which previews the first six months in federal politics.

That almost imperceptible whirring sound is not your imagination. It’s the wheels of politics grinding back into motion. Before we know it, they’ll be spinning at breakneck speed and the summer break will be no more than a fast-fading memory.

There’ll be no comfortable transition to political discourse in 2014, no gradual incline from February sittings to May budget and the still-as-yet-undetermined new Senate in July. Politics in 2014 is going to be like waking up on a rollercoaster: one day we’ll be taking our usual summer afternoon siesta and the next we’ll be hurtling full speed towards political turns and descents so unpredictable that even the strongest of constitutions will be unsettled.

We’ll probably still be packing away our Australia Day paraphernalia when the by-election for Kevin Rudd’s old seat Griffith gets underway – it’s expected in late January or early February. The Liberal candidate, former AMA President Dr Keith Glasson, looks like a shoo-in: after all, he rated more primary votes than Rudd and clipped the ALP’s margin by 5.4% to a much more achievable 3% in the 2013 election. Yet only one federal government has ever taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election, and that was Kalgoorlie in 1920. So Glasson’s path to victory may be more turbulent than first thought – particularly if dissatisfied Queensland voters use the by-election as an opportunity to whack the Federal Coalition over the knuckles.

Around the same time we’ll be thrown headlong into the continuing saga of the lost WA Senate votes. The High Court’s Justice Kenneth Hayne flagged in December that challenges to the result (one from the Australian Electoral Commission, and one each from the Palmer United Party and Labor) would not be heard until late January. The AEC wants a new WA Senate election and has asked the court to rule by 18 March so the poll can be held in April. Conversely, PUP and Labor want the court to revert to the first count of the vote, which allocated the 5th and 6th WA Senate positions to them. This would give Clive Palmer’s party the balance of power in the new Senate.

Continue reading “2014 with a bang!”

Have the Greens peaked already?

So here we are, teetering over the cusp of 2012. This is the year that apparently will make or break the major party leaders, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. It’s the year that kicks off the long countdown to the next federal election, which is due anytime from 3 August 2013 to 30 November 2013.

We’re told it’s the year we’ll see whether Gillard can rebuild her battered leadership credentials, whether Rudd has enough mongrel to bring his own party down, and whether Abbott can recast himself as an alternative Prime Minister worthy of our respect.

We were presented with some fascinating entrails in 2011 from which to divine what might occur in 2012. We had two current major party leaders with substantial net dissatisfaction ratings and the opposition commanding an excruciating opinion poll lead over the government. There were two failed party leaders throwing bungers at their colleagues from the sidelines and a realignment of parliamentary deckchairs that variously affected morale, depending upon how much more or less voting power the change bestowed upon certain parties and individuals.

But an equally fascinating, and rarely discussed political artefact from the year 2011 concerns not the major parties, but the party which seeks to differentiate itself from them. Despite notching up a number of policy successes in the parliament due to having the balance of power (either partly or entirely), the Greens have singularly been unable to convert this success into voter support. It begs the question whether the Greens have already peaked, and whether the 2013 election will return to being a contest only between the major parties.

The numbers are quite clear. At the last federal election 16 months ago, the Greens polled 11.8%. Since then, across all the credible published opinion polls, their support has been around 10–12%. While this number may go up or down a few points from week to week, the change is always within the margin of error and the trend over time shows that support for the Greens has not budged since election day.

The Greens have not won any additional supporters, despite delivering on their icon issues. They secured a carbon price to battle climate change and $10 billion for the renewable energy industry, helped to ensure that refugees who arrive illegally by boat can remain in Australia while having their asylum claims assessed and raised awareness and acceptance of gay marriage amongst members of parliament from other parties.

All of these achievements would appeal to progressive Labor and swinging voters, and should have been enough to entice them to tell pollsters that they will vote Green at the next election. But this has not been the case. Perhaps that’s because most progressives already vote Green and the voters over which the major parties are battling are more interested in “kitchen table” issues such as jobs, interest rates, health and education.

This is borne out by the numbers. Voters disgruntled with the Labor Party have not gravitated to the Greens, but the Coalition. Think about that: on election day Labor polled 38% of the primary vote, the Coalition 43.6% and the Greens 11.8%. Eight months later, on 8 July, 11% had left Labor (27%), 5% of those went to the Coalition (49%) but none went to the Greens (12%). This was Labor’s lowest primary vote ever, even below that recorded when Keating was PM. Since then, voters have begun to return to Labor (34%) from the Coalition (47%) but still the Green vote remains unchanged.

This suggests the Green vote is already maximised and there’s very little the party can do to attract new voters. In addition, it’s likely that the major parties will do preference deals at the next election that edge out Green candidates in favour of each other. Mutual animosity, it seems, is outweighed by mutual resentment when it comes to the Greens having the final say in parliament.

There’s no doubt that 2012 is going to be a year to watch Australian federal politics. There’s the possibility of a surplus budget in May, compensation for the carbon price will be delivered to many Australians as a lump sum in June and the carbon price regime will commence on 1 July.

The question then will be whether we’re more parsimonious with Julia’s carbon compensation than we were with Kevin’s $900? Only time will tell. Additional compensation will come into effect in June 2013, just in time for the REAL federal election campaign.

Perhaps by then, we’ll have come to accept the carbon price as we did the GST.

Rudd may again be Prime Minister and we may have a new opposition leader. Who knows, almost anything is possible in politics, except for the Greens expanding on their primary vote.

 This piece originally appeared at the  Kings’ Tribune

A salutary tale for the Australian Greens


There once was a political party that claimed it was not like the others.

The party was led by a wizened political warrior who spoke compellingly about the major parties being out of touch. His party advocated environmental protection, recognition for indigenous Australians, law reform for gays and equality for all Australians.

The party offered Australian voters a third force in politics and vowed to impose accountability upon the major parties.

Over time, the party grew in popularity and its candidates won enough votes to secure the balance of power in the Senate.

Do you know which party this story is about?

Well think again, because this party, the Australian Democrats, held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, the Democrats also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.

Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.

How did this happen? And more importantly – could it happen again?

This is the question that should be occupying the minds of the Australian Greens right now, as they prepare to take up the Senate balance of power on 1 July 2011.

There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Both parties positioned themselves where there was a perceived absence of political representation. The Democrats were considered a centrist party, attracting the first preference votes of the disillusioned major-party faithful, who then returned to the fold with second preferences on a roughly 50-50 basis.

Despite campaigning on many of the same issues, the Greens have positioned themselves to the left of Labor, with around 80 percent of their second preferences heading back to the Labor Party.

Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two minor parties is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated.

It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing and this should be a salutary lesson for the Greens.

Many observers point to the Democrats’ decision in 1999 to support passage of the GST in the Senate as the beginning of the end. This is instructive in itself, for the Democrats took a pro-GST policy to the preceding election. Nevertheless, the decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles, reinforced by a number of Democrat Senators crossing the floor to vote against the tax. This undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time onwards, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 Federal Election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it is much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

This article first appeared at The King’s Tribune.